Reviews by Wade Clarke

horror

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Dawn of the Mummy, by Patrick Wullaert

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The adventure game of the first mummy gore film., January 12, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, c64

Dawn of the Mummy is a treasure hunt adventure written in BASIC for the Commodore 64, and broadly based on the 1981 horror film of the same name. The film had the distinction of being the first mummy gore film; it still is the only mummy gore film as I type these words in 2022. The film sought to cash in on international love for George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, accurately conveying to the punter through its ripped-off title what to expect of it: graphic gutmunching, just perpetrated by mummies this time instead of zombies.

I first watched Dawn of the Mummy on a bootleg VHS during the 1990s. Admittedly it was pretty hard to see what was going on, but the plot has a bunch of New York fashion models swarming into a recently opened Egyptian tomb for a photo shoot. Rick, the overacting soldier-of-fortune character who blew the tomb open, gnashes his teeth as he waits for everyone to get lost so he can nab the treasures, but ultimately the lot of them fall foul of the curse of Safiraman, the mummies' leader, whom a crazy old lady prophesised would attack in the following manner: "Safiraman will rise and kill! His followers will rise and kill!" And so they do, running amok in a climactic wedding massacre.

In the game, you play Rick, and your goal is to pull as many treasures from the tomb as you can and get them to your home space, where you can type STORE TREASURES to receive a score. Dawn of the Mummy is programmed in BASIC, and while there's a thoughtful touch here and there, it's mostly a classic (for this type and level of amateur adventure) mix of guess-the-verb, instant deaths and game-wrecking incidents you can't anticipate. I was happy to keep a walkthrough handy. It's non-trivial to get all the treasures without a ton of experimentation, or cleaving to the walkthrough, so the variable score element adds some interest.

Unfortunately, the highly amusing fashion shoot component of the film doesn't make it into the game, but a few particular moments of gore do. A head-hatcheted guy is found hanging on a hook, mummies strangle people, and another menace "pulls out your stomach".

The probably-then-teenaged author dismisses his own work in an opening demo scroll, declaring: "A lot of shit programs are being released lately so why not add this junk to that already huge stockpile". I think the game's better than that, but probably only a star better. Plus FARAO is spelled wrong in the introductory text. Still, it's cool that this eighties horror movie that managed to carve out a weird little niche for itself does in fact have a computer game to go with it.


Night House, by Bitter Karella

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Spooky and mildly confusing, with a lot of old Quest stickiness, November 22, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Quest, IFComp 2016

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)

Night House is a mystery-horror parser adventure of some spookiness. It mobilises a combination of vintage object-based puzzling (use A on B, B on C, C on D) and methods of backstory revelation popular in both horror films and games of the last couple of decades. The protagonist is an eight year-old child who wakes to a mysteriously empty version of their home and unseen menaces.

If you love amassing a huge inventory of doodads and using them to hurdle hurdles in all kinds of laterally conceived practical ways, Night House will whet that appetite, though the old Quest interface gets in the way A LOT. (In old Quest, when in doubt about verbs, use the phrase USE (A) WITH (B). If still in doubt, right-click any lit objects to see if the action you've been agonisingly trying to phrase correctly happens to be a contextual choice that then shows up.) If you don’t have enough horror tastebuds on your tongue, you mightn't find Night House sufficiently distinguished from things you’ve experienced before. Overall it's a dense puzzler with a pretty good, mildly choppy story that I basically followed but didn't completely follow; I will express some of my ignorances below.

Questions of which character you're playing amongst those presented, and by extension, which sex, come up early in Night House. This element of the game was probably experienced as the mystery element it was probably intended to be by some players (see other reviews) but I fixed on it so hard I began to perceive implementation flaws through it and got bogged down. For instance, controlling how objects are described is one of the best methods for characterisation in IF. And Night House wasn't consistent about this. Some objects were described with typical IF snark. Others were character-specific ("Your sister would kill you if you touched this!" (her Trapper Keeper)). This just made it even harder to decide who I was.

So I didn't get off on the best foot with this adventure, but once I found the flashlight (TORCH) and descended from the top floor, things began to pick up. Progress was well gated by various means. I found things to do now and portals and devices to open later.

The house contents show the game is set in the 1980s-1990s. If this doubles as nostalgia for folks of that vintage (e.g. me. I mean this house has an Apple II in it) the game is still wise enough to stay properly in the child narrator's character and make nothing anachronistic out of the situation.

The practical-going-on-impractical puzzle solutions are probably no weirder than some old Infocom, but eventually I had trouble identifying puzzles because there were all these seemingly unrelated story threads floating about. A father worried about his son. A moral panic involving dinosaur cartoons and toys, complete with a spoonerist joke description of the dinosaur who's similar to Raphael of the Ninja Turtles ("Raphael is cool but crude."). Old newspaper articles about yokel weirdos and Halloween. Collectively, these things didn't offer me much direction about what I should be trying to do in Night House other than solving anything that looked like a puzzle. I don't think the threads integrated fabulously at game's end, but at least I knew what my own character's situation was. And in retrospect, the game's story was denser than first appeared.


The Living Puppet, by Liu Zian

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Minimal interactivity doesn't underwhelm a fundamentally good horror story., November 14, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, horror

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2017.)

The Living Puppet is a creepy and classically-styled horror IF about a pupeteer’s mysterious relationship with the doll that is the sole source of income for he and his wife Li Shaoxian. It’s delivered in a web browser as long passages of click-scrolling text broken up by several major decision branches that the player can choose for Shaoxian. I played several times to different outcomes over 40 minutes during IFComp 2017 and enjoyed it. I can recommend it generally, and to horror folks specifically, accepting that a couple of its presentation choices may be too irritating for some players. The game sports horror themes and one explicitly violent scene.

Puppet does a couple of things with the text that I found technically annoying, but it’s a testament to the qualities possessed by an essentially good story that I decided to keep playing in spite of them to experience the whole thing. The first problem is that the player must click or press keys to elicit each line of text. The text scrolls at a fast but not instant speed, with the result that when you come back for your second game, for example, you need to hold down the space key for a minute (I timed it) just to reach the first choice again. Puppet’s second text issue is that against the second of its backdrop friezes, the text is partly unreadable due to colour and contrast issues. I’ve noticed I have a high tolerance for text colour variation, so I assume there will be players with lower thresholds who may simply quit on this screen.

The game is set in China, presumably at some time in the past as no mod cons are present and the world of traditional puppeteering is writ far more largely than I expect it would be today. The English version of the game is an ESL entity, so some of the writing is a little off around the corners, but important ideas are expressed clearly enough, and little details like falling snow flakes, breath in the snow, characters cupping their hands and the like, make their mark. The emotional intensity of the husband and wife as they deal with his gruelling performance schedule and her mounting loneliness also come through effectively. The game is about being on the outside of a relationship defined by a Faustian bargain, and its denouements are correspondingly harrowing and gruesome, emotionally and physically. This is what I most appreciated about The Living Puppet; it pays off.

Puppet’s IF mechanics are simple and won’t be enough for some players. There are few choices, but they are highly divergent for the story when they are offered. I also like the fingerprint graphic that appears on choices previously taken. It has both a practical function and seems to emphasise player responsibility for the choice. The network of choices is also a logical one. That’s to say that information learned from one ending can be wielded in one’s own mind to decide where a different earlier choice may have lead, or will lead to if the game is replayed. There are no narrative tricks here, just a good story with several outcomes. There are a handful of discrete sound effects, too, plus a decidedly non-discrete background music loop that becomes too bombastic too quickly for the prose on a first playthrough, but which lines up weirdly well with the later intense goings on.


Slasher Swamp, by Robot

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Slip, die, repeat in a swamp made out of gory hazards., November 12, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: TADS, IFComp 2014, horror

(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)

As much as I dislike dwelling on the concept of tropes, Slasher Swamp is an old school (i.e. all puzzling for puzzling sake, sparse prose, several schtick mazes, scores of instant deaths, no UNDO) adventure in which you find yourself a witness to a nonsensical mishmash of splattery horror film tropes after your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It’s a Windows application with the TADS engine under the hood, and the author proffers a small command set which can be used to clear the whole thing. I mapped the game and played to completion in about an hour, but I have to admit I achieved this by brute-forcing the content of locations. And there are a lot of locations.

The prose is a mixture of the atmospheric, the overdone atmospheric, the jokey and the juvenile. It's a tone that will be recognised by anyone who’s played any old school games which indulged their authors.

I mildly enjoyed ticking off a variety of silly death scenes, but they're assembled in this game with no overriding design and no consequence, and thus to little effect. Most objects go unused, including conspicuously important-looking ones. The player has no direction or purpose other than to keep throwing themselves at everything until they can win by a kind of exhaustive attrition of props and puzzles, though there are few puzzles in light of the size of the map. The forest mazes are small but tedious, and the random deaths are numerous, and truly, deeply random.

The worst symptom of the disabling of UNDO is that from any of the scores of rooms with teleport-like one-way exits, you can’t go back. I would often save the game just so that I could try each of the four exits from a room without having to circle the entire map after each teleport.

In the end, Slasher Swamp has all the shortcomings of both old school senselessness and aimless design. The world is the base for something decent, but the hodge podge of blood'n'excrement scenes aren't woven into any specific gameplay content. They’re just there, usually described to you and then gone again all in the space of one move, unrelated to each other, unrelated to progress in the game.

In spite of Slasher's shortcomings, I still got moderate amounts of fun out of it.


Coloratura, by Lynnea Glasser

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Great sci-fi from the POV of an aqueous alien entity, November 12, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, science fiction, horror, IFComp 2013

(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)

Coloratura is an outstanding parser-driven adventure in which you play an aqueous alien entity (or more gauchely, a blob) capable of interacting with the universe on a rich metaphysical level; part psionic, part molecular, part empathic. Unfortunately you've been dragged up from your seabed home by a crew of humans not unlike those in The Abyss and placed on a table in their ship for research purposes. Your goal is to escape and find a way to return to your home, and it is in your nature to seek to do so without inducing unnecessary violence or discordance in the universe.

The primary aesthetic is the viewpoint of the alien, rendered in a grammatically strange style and with invented words and unusual uses of tense and person. Your character is preoccupied both with the atomic joys of the universe, its magnetic fields, temperatures and viscosities, and with the emotions and empathies of other beings, which it perceives as coloured auras. You also have the power to try to affect others' emotions by instilling them with the corresponding colour, and many of the game's puzzles involve interpreting the panicking humans' emotional states, which the blob is very good at, and nudging them to alter the situation aboard the ship in your favour.

This is an excellent game with many levels of engagement and innovation, plus puzzles and suspense, and which exploits a lot of possibilities unique to text gaming. This is Lynnea's third time in IFComp and I think it's her best game yet. Spoilers ahead.

There is a delight in sharing the blob's way of seeing and feeling things, in mingling your particles with those of a column of hot air or slipping through vents and pipes. Your ability to keep these sensations separate from your apprehension of the drama of the human crew, who are freaking out about your escape, conveys your alien character's holistic view of existence. While you're always aware of the urgency of the different tasks which must be completed to aid your escape, you're incapable of feeling the panic yourself. These tasks include sabotaging elements of the ship so it doesn't stray too far from your home or persuading crew members to help each other. And viewed from your outsider perspective, the humans are extremely panicky. You almost feel as if you're trying to placate bickering children at times.

The game's modelling is strong, with the different crew members (sometimes named by you for their emotional qualities - E.G. 'Mercy' is the nurse) moving around the ship independently in response to your various transgressions. It's not always necessary to follow them on their errands but in most cases you can do so if you wish. At times when they come to blows and you need to calm them down, the actions to take are well clued by both the situation and the prose. Another achievement of the game is that the human drama is so dense. There is a suspenseful development of different crises aboard the ship over the course of the game and you're usually aware of each human's motives and movements in relation to them. I was reminded a little of Infocom's Suspended here by the way you have to negotiate burgeoning disasters remotely.

In the way of nitpicks, there are a decent number of bugs in the game, but almost all of them are down at a level of fine detail which doesn't obstruct core play. For instance, some commands produce responses worded for the blob at times when you're controlling a human. I hit one runtime error which didn't stop play, though in retrospect I wonder if it corrupted the next game I saved, which would not reload. Something which isn't necessarily a bug but which I would like to see changed is that the command LOOK takes a move. There are several occasions where timing of actions is critical, especially during the climactic fight involving the ship's captain, and at such times you'll instinctively LOOK to remind yourself of any features in the immediate environment which could help you, and probably die as a result. Having to remember not to do that and to scroll back through the history was annoying.

As an Inform author, I was interested to see that this game uses only one extension (a small code library which adds a particular piece of functionality to your game). I usually break out about ten extensions before I've gone anywhere, but I didn't notice any inconveniences here. If anything, the game is pro-convenience. Occasionally it reaches into that territory where it makes the taking of a particular abstract action so easy that grizzled parser veterans like myself will get stuck as they try to achieve the action by performing unnecessary constituent actions, even though the master phrase to use is right there in the last piece of prose the game spat out. Apart from the fact of the traditional player base not being used to such helpfulness and therefore often missing it, this is a direction I'd personally like more parser games to go in where it's appropriate.

I confess that I didn't really get the implications of the epilogue, which is playable, but that's my only beef with the game's content. Coloratura is a top-notch sci-fi adventure with an engaging story, vividly realised character viewpoint and a concept which is likely to refresh your batteries on the subject of empathy.


Final Girl, by Hanon Ondricek

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Suspenseful, funny and well-informed card-based slasher film game., July 3, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: StoryNexus, horror, IFComp 2013

* I wrote the following review of Final Girl for my blog upon the game's initial IFComp 2013 release. The game is no longer available for tech reasons, and may not become available in its original form again, so I've left this review 100% as I originally wrote it. I'm not sure that there are/were any specific solutions to the game that could be 'spoiled' by what I've written, but that said, this review looks extensively at the content and mechanics.

Final Girl is a highly innovative horror-thriller delivered via the StoryNexus platform. The player takes on the role of a teen girl who must identify a masked staple gun(!) killer in the wake of a cabin-in-the-woods-vacation massacre of her friends. I haven't played anything quite like Final Girl before, and while some of that will be down to me never having used StoryNexus before either, it's also clearly down to the game itself. I've not seen a game manage horror genre microscopy like this before, with stats like Squick, Terror, Exertion and Badassery. You even need to manually control your out-of-of-control breathing. The whole thing is framed as a slasher flick, and there are some touches of meta level commentary, but they don't come at the expense of the effect of the core story. As it is tense and gruelling to be the final girl in a horror film, it is tense and gruelling to make your way through this game. This is why I find the author's 'send up' description in one of his blurbs (though not the other, and I prefer the other) somewhat off target.

(The other day I read that a term emerging to describe a variety of ironic storytelling less aggressive and more affectionate than postmodernism's is 'metamodernism', but since I've only heard it once, I'd best not harp on it.)

It may be possible to complete Final Girl in under two hours but I died at around the two hour mark, then accidentally conceded my death, losing all my progress. Well, I'm pretty sure I lost it. The trouble with StoryNexus is that there isn't one piece of freaking documentation for players. While working out how to play was a broadly intuitive experience, finer points like 'Is there an undo? Can I save? Do I need to save?' were all left blowing in the wind. Maybe some veterans can chime in here.

The upshot is that Final Girl is a substantial game with some demanding elements, and it might take you to the two-hour mark or beyond. You'll also need to create a StoryNexus account or log in via Facebook or Twitter to be able to play. It's absolutely worth doing these things, unless you hate horror, because this is an unusual and surprising game. It also has an attractive visual style and an effective audio soundtrack. And more than once it says: "You no longer have any of this: 'staples in your face'". Low level spoilers ahead.

The term Final Girl, describing the lone female survivor at the end of many a horror film, was coined by Carol Clover in her book of horror film criticism "Men, women and Chainsaws". When Final Girl, the game, started with what appeared to be the final scene of a slasher film, I was disappointed with both of the trajectories I anticipated. I thought that either (a) the game was going to cut away from this final scene back to the very start of the story, one of my least favourite filmmaking devices, or (b) the game was just going to be really short and end then and there.

The first surprise of Final Girl was that neither of these things happened. The scene ended with the apparent death of the bad guy, but then the debriefing just kept going until a new investigatory story began. And this story becomes the game, interspersed with flashbacks to the prior story which led to the first scene. So the game's title is a good one. Final Girlness is normally a state acquired by a film's end. In this game, you begin as the final girl, fully formed and already possessed of a degree of savvy – which you'll need because as you'd expect, the killer isn't really dead, and you need to work out who he or she is.

StoryNexus play is based around cards. In Final Girl, these represent locations you can explore. To play certain locations you'll need to have already played particular cards, acquired certain items or set certain stats. Conditions like these can also apply to actions which might appear on the screen. To be able to move, you might need to rest to lower exertion. To do something particularly cringeworthy, like examine a corpse, your Squik level might first need to be reduced, or you might need to take a deep breath to reduce your fright levels. This micromanagement is a good match for the minutiae of horror films the game is simulating, because they're all about microscopic detail: a foot trying to not squeak on the floor, someone hiding in a closet trying to hold their breath, a door handle being turned as slowly as possible, etc. In response to your decisions, the game produces a ceaseless and fascinating parade of cards, badges, icons, skill updates and status reports. If you get better at something like using a pair of pliers, you'll be told exactly how you just got better at using them, whether you learned from fumbling or whether you learned how to wield them with sweaty hands.

Amidst all of this mechanical fun there's still a mystery which needs solving. You went to the cabin by the lake for a vacation with a dozen friends. Where are they now, and is any one of them the masked killer? Flashback scenes round out your relationship with each of these horror archetype teens. So much of this game comes in short stabs of prose, but these slightly longer memories are well written and do a little for each character. They also allow you to act upon the knowledge gained from them back in the present.

The lone element of Final Girl I disliked was the ubiquity of the killer. He (or she or it) attacks you again and again as you explore, and it's a time-consuming and no-gain encounter each time. This kind of ongoing harassment of the player is a pretty common stress tactic in horror games, but it's not handled well here. I suspect its random occurrence rate has been set too high, and similarly, too much of the encounter itself is down to 50/50 luck. That said, it is kind of StoryNexus to either explicitly tell you the odds of success of an action you're about to take or to give you a broad estimate of your chances in words (EG 'nearly impossible').

Dying and accepting your death leads to a game over screen with a movie review assessment of your playing style. This is the most overt display of the game's meta film material, though there are scattered in-game jokes as well. However, Final Girl walks the walk so well, the commentary comes across mostly as a fun addition. The game's act of quoting so many slasher films in its performance is its major gesture, a much stronger communication delivered at a more fundamental level. This is an excellent horror game with a sense of fun, but which doesn't skimp on tension or grizzliness either. It's got a few grindy elements, but with the exception of the repetitive run-ins with the stalker, I think they help make the experience what it is.


Fish Bowl, by Ethan Rupp and Joshua Rupp

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Short'n'effective sea'n'character horror., July 18, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2012, Inform

(I originally published this review on 22 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 25th of 26 games I reviewed.)

Fish Bowl is a short and effective horror piece in which you play sozzled beachcomber Larry Wyndham, a man who wakes up in his shack one day to find that a dusty fishbowl has materialised atop his three-legged dresser. The game is atmospheric with the whiff of sea horrors and sticky dead things, and it's quite a good character piece as well, evoking your awareness of Larry's constant fatigue and salty decrepitude. There are some bugs and oversights about but none that really impeded my play.

Larry's opening narration suggests that he's a guy who stumbles around in something like a semipermanent hangover. When he can't remember the previous night or recognise the fishbowl, these are immediate motivations for the player to start investigating Larry's surroundings. Doing so induces weird intrusions of memory and flashes of conversational static, though I wasn't crazy about the presentation of the latter. On the topic of presentation, the games sports some indented paragraphs. They look quite nice and I'm surprised IF games/authors don't think about this style more often, but I suppose the tradition that it is more helpful to leave an entire blank line between different chunks of information is well established for good functional reasons.

I read other reviews of Fish Bowl which reported over-awareness of its linear nature, or of its mechanism of containing the player to the present location until they perform certain tasks. The game is basically linear and it does contain the player to make sure they get everything they need from each of its few locations, but I didn't perceive either of these qualities in a negative light. The more character-based and naturalistic a game becomes, the more I fear that it will let me do something stupid like walk right down the beach when all the important things I need to attend to are back at my shack. I think Larry is written clearly enough that his thoughts can direct player effort to where it needs to go, and that some of the blocking in general is pretty natural. For instance, Larry's mini-rant to himself which prevents him from leaving the area in front of the shack without (Spoiler - click to show)burying the dead cat. I also don't mind repeating entry of a command when it very clear that the same action is the one that needs to be performed again – for instance, typing GET BOTTLE, seeing the bottle float further out of reach in response, then entering GET BOTTLE again. I think Fish Bowl is consistently good with this kind of thing.

Thoughts on the finale: (Spoiler - click to show)After you trigger a weird and unpleasant series of memories and images, and try and fail to retrieve the bottle from the ocean, you end up back in your shack, ready to wake to a day which is much worse. The revelation about your situation, confirmed by your supernatural answering machine, arrives all at once, and contains some elements that you might have vaguely guessed at by now as well as unexpected background information about you actually being a spaceship pilot infected by some kind of sea monster. Your various memories now make sense and the props you have been dealing with for the past two days are revealed as masking hallucinations. It's a creepy outcome, a bit Ray Bradbury and a bit H.P. Lovecraft, especially the final image of Larry slithering back into the ocean. And I was able to reach it without too much trouble. Fish Bowl's story plays pretty well now, and could play even better if the text output was tidied up, the feedback messages were coralled so that they don't sometimes appear in the wrong order, and missing nouns were implemented.


Dracula, by Rod Pike

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Garish and gory, bewildering but compelling., July 17, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Commodore 64, horror, commercial

Dracula is an exciting, garish and highly confounding 95% text adventure which was released for the Commodore 64 by CRL in 1986. It was the first of a series of similarly themed horror adventures by Rod Pike (and later, other authors) including Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dracula broadly follows the events of Bram Stoker's novel and remains highly regarded in C64 circles to this day for a multitude of reasons, sensationalism amongst them. The non-text 5% of the game consists of gory digitised images which are displayed when the player meets one of the game's many violent ends. The game deliberately courted the attention of the British Board of Film Censors, and got it; it was the first game in the UK to receive a 15 certificate. The game's producers admitted they had wanted an 18 rating.

"Their claws bury into my flesh! They beat their wings on my body while their beaks tear into me! They are tearing me to pieces!

ARRGH!! MY EYES!! NO! THE PAIN.. I CAN'T STAND THE PAIN! I CANNOT SEE!!"
The above passage is typical of the game's thrilling tone of demise, and after each death the player is treated to a SID chip rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

While all of these flourishes are inseparable from the game's intense atmosphere, they aren't the primary elements of what, it must be remembered, is an adaptation of a classic novel. The game puts the player into the shoes of two of the novel's heroes, Jonathan Harker and Doctor Edward Seward, and presents puzzles across a wide range of contexts: Good old-fashioned obstacle removal by useful object, observation and exploration, warding off Dracula and his minions and, perhaps bizarrely, the testing of social and domestic common sense.

The game is frequently unfair, with an inconsistent approach towards what the player knows versus what his/her character knows, lengthy and attractive room descriptions which are nevertheless quite misdirective, plenty of unheralded and undoable deaths, and countless incidences of time-based sequences in which you have to start typing WAIT repeatedly to achieve crucial aims. Considering all these difficulties, I was surprised by how enjoyable I found Dracula, and I realised that the game's mitigating circumstance is that for two thirds of its length, it is almost entirely linear and episodic.

If you've been dropped off by coach at Dracula's Castle, and you're standing in front of a locked door and there are no other exits, what else is there to do but assault your current location with every verb and noun you can think of? I discovered in playing Dracula that I don't mind brute forcing a game so long as the story is exciting and the process isn't querulous. Many stretches of this game involve just getting through one or two rooms at a time using only observational skills or objects that are immediately at hand (okay, and at times, desperate illogic). What you don't have to worry about at such times is whether you failed to pick up some important item twenty rooms earlier. On the other hand, what you do have to worry about are the game's assumptions about your character's knowledge, abilities and inventory, as these change without warning throughout the adventure.

A tiny first room (Spoiler - click to show)spoiler: In the game's first location, your path into the inn is blocked by a drunk coachman. Checking your inventory shows that you are carrying nothing, not even money, but the solution you must dredge up is PAY COACHMAN. You might say to yourself, 'Fair enough, I can now assume I carry money around with me,' and the assumption holds true for awhile as you lavish various Transylvanian yokels with your Earth dollars. But in a later chapter of the game, your money starts off in a coat which you aren't wearing, and you won't be able to pay people until you have noticed this, taken your coat from your chair and rummaged through it.

A less nitpicky observation is that despite the fact that you get to play two very intelligent men in this game – or at least one very intelligent man plus Jonathan Harker – there will be times when both men are capable of acting like imbeciles if they do not receive your explicit directions to the contrary. The game's wavering treatment of the entity that is 'me' certainly caused me to reflect on what what actions I expect should be automatically taken for me during a text adventure, based on the qualities of my character in such games where I am playing a character with a pre-existing background and disposition (like Dracula) as opposed to games where my character is entirely a cipher for action (like Zork.)

The silliest incident along these lines in Dracula occurs when you are playing Doctor Seward and need to catch a train to Stratford. (Spoiler - click to show)Having purchased a ticket, you then step south onto the platform. As often happens in this game, the room description does not mention any of the exits. Most of the time you can only find these by trying to move in every direction in turn. So you dutifully wait for a train to arrive, then board it. To paraphrase what happens next…
"You caught the train to Folkstone. You lose."
Apparently the doctor is so klutzy as to be unable to board the correct one of two trains from his hometown station without player input, though he oversees the running of an entire mental asylum for his day job without the same. What the player must do here is bump into every 'wall' in the original platform location, find that there is a path to another platform and go and wait there, despite the fact that neither platform is labelled.
It pays to save often in Dracula because you never know when another strange game-ender like this will crop up.

The game's prose is often uncharacteristically rich and lengthy for a text adventure from this period, even if the author misuses apostrophes. His punctuation mistakes don't matter because the perilous tone and content are well delivered, and the compelling writing places you thoroughly in the shoes of each character. The prose is also delivered in a gothic red font which definitely helps to create the game's particular atmosphere, at least for those whose eyes can stand it. Even in the game's heyday, hackers released patches which allowed players to use a more basic font. Different kinds of text are colour-coded, marking out objective description, your own thoughts, other characters' dialogue, etc., and this feature provides visual interest and clarification. The game's parser comes across as fairly opaque, simply because the game is so episodic that all the vocab you might struggle to guess is only relevant for a screen or three at a time.

It's hard for me to think of any other text adventure which trespasses so often against sense, logic and fairness, but which has remained engrossing to me. Dracula benefits from the qualities of Bram Stoker's novel, maintains the book's fearful tone in its prose and recreates some of its most memorable sequences, such as Harker's imprisonment and escape. The game presents mostly as sequences rather than as an open environment, and this seems to be the key to making its often inscrutable puzzles work. The player must doggedly persist with minimal cues to claw his/her way from one dangerous scene to the next, bashing against the walls to find the exits and turning to features in the environment which even the game itself suggests are useless, like a cupboard described as 'totally empty' which, predictably for Dracula, isn't.

Dracula demonstrates that there can be unexpected benefits to having a linear structure in a text adventure, and its decided confusion towards the ideas of character and agency is at least thought-provoking. It knows scary and is reverent to its source material. It is also highly irrational, probably impossible for any modern player to complete without the walk-through, and not a place a newcomer to older adventure games should start, fans of Stoker's book excepted. I believe, however, that anyone who does play Dracula today will be able to perceive why the game is well remembered.
* In 2003-2004 some Inform users remade Dracula using this modern Interactive Fiction system, an impressive feat. In the way of fidelity, the remake offers a choice of Commodore 64 or Amstrad colour schemes, and in the way of niceties it offers cleaned up text formatting and the inclusion of features like UNDO. Strikes against the remake are the absence of the original music (replaced by an extremely dodgy Bach MOD) and the replacement of all the original graphics, except for the title pages, with uninteresting 3-D renderings. The new version is undoubtedly easier to play but it loses the specific aesthetic effects of the Commodore 64 hardware.


The Black Lily, by Hannes Schueller

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A novel but very elusive mystery lily., May 23, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2014, Inform

Hints came early in The Black Lily that its narrative and subject matter would be following the trajectory of a giallo. The original giallos – yellow-spined Italian mystery novels – morphed into an eponymous genre of Italian thriller-horror-whodunnit films from the 1960s onwards. The films are often graphically violent, sexually charged, visually fetishistic and filled with histrionic characters and extreme psychology.

My familiarity with giallo established some expectations I had of The Black Lily that were helpful in understanding it, but the game turned out to be far subtler than its cinematic counterparts; actually, it's quite elusive. It is an elusive version of a kind of story known for flamboyance rather than subtlety, and certainly novel in this regard. The game's 1975 setting is probably also an extension of its giallo aesthetic, since the 1970s were the heyday for giallo films.

The Black Lily's protagonist narrates in the first person, the game alternating passages set at home in the present with past tense memory episodes the PC willingly triggers by looking at pictures of women in a photo album. My own reviewing coyness (what kind of protagonist is the protagonist?) is both in aid of preserving the game's mysteries and an extension of its deliberately evasive narration. The PC presents a vain and polished front but tries to slide around introspection of the kind IF often prompts via commands like EXAMINE ME or INVENTORY. Nor is the PC comfortable with the game's ubiquitous mirrors. The only thoughts pursued with passion are those about women, usually intermingled with visions of a black lily. These thoughts arrive frequently but suddenly, and explode with a galvanising intensity, and even more exclamation marks than the game normally uses.

The Black Lily gives directions on the way through that show the author has clear ideas about how players will be interacting with it. For instance, it specifies moments when it's important to save, and specifies from the outset that it might take multiple playthroughs to work out what's going on. Giallo-armed as I was, I felt I only half-understood what was going on when the game ended, but I also didn't feel great trust in the experience I'd had that the game would round that understanding out too much if I did replay (which I did, from various save points). For instance, there is a score system in place, but points are few and far between, and tend to be found in a blundering fashion, sometimes at fringes of the terrain. It's hard to feel them as a measure of progress or even interpret what kind of progress they are measuring. At least not for awhile.

I'm very into the psychology and horror terrain that the Black Lily is working, especially via the giallo prism, but the game is probably a bit too reticent to make most players feel confident about their interactions with it. It's fascinating to explore the first time, but not too fascinating. I spent too much time thinking: 'Why was that? What's that character? What just happened?' It's hard to be pulled into a story when your first degree comprehension of it is so gap-filled. The Black Lily is deliberately tough about offering ways in. There is a sophistication to be appreciated here if you are prepared to dwell on the material for long enough, in spite of some of its scantness. Perceiving the sophistication slowly is probably not as satisfying as being able to feel it in a lived way while playing the game.


Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire - Chapter 1: the Awakening, by Marco Vallarino

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
In which you play the bad guy., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, IFComp 2015, horror

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)

This is how I like my vampires: Solitary, dangerous and with vile motivations. (As opposed to ubiquitous, shiny and Mormonesque.)

Admittedly Martin Voigt, the anti-hero of Darkiss, isn't as powerful as a vampire usually would be, but that's because the good guys previously killed him, leaving him with the inconvenient side-effect of weakness. The player's job in this classically styled parser adventure is to get Martin back into fighting, biting shape.

Darkiss was originally released in Italian in 2011. The IFComp 2015 version is a fresh translation into English. The game is puzzly, robustly implemented and relishes the protagonist's intent of evil vengeance. As might be expected, it's also just slightly off in some of the translation, but the core translation is resilient. The off notes don't affect game mechanics or player understanding, just the ideal reading of the prose.

The game is principally set in Martin's lair, into which he's been barricaded by both magical and folkloric means. The puzzles mix magical and practical solutions. Collecting the props needed for them requires quite exhaustive examination of the room descriptions, and for this reason I was glad of the hint system.

The lair's familiarity to this long-lived creature is a good mechanism for triggering anecdotes and memories from the past. Martin moons frothingly over his torture chamber and sadistic treatment of previous victims, while less exciting stuff – like the trick to getting through a certain door – is correspondingly less easy to recall, and thus decently excused in the story.

The game's overall feel is one of a wicked romp, though it's obviously not without some seriousness, too. The scenes in which Martin recalls past loves like Lilith from the painting, or Sabrina from the white coffin, are probably the most resonant and Anne Ricey. It's unusual to have a character so plainly evil and bloodthirsty, yet strangely endearing, at the centre of an adventure, and to play from the villain's point of view in general. The anchoring of this experience in a solid parser puzzler makes it an entertaining one.



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